Jim Crow Guide: The Way it Was

by Stetson Kennedy 1959


Chapter XIII - Open to All (Whites)

If you think any law abiding orderly person can enter any restaurant, hotel, cinema, auditorium, park, playground, golf-course, swimming pool, bathing beach, or other such place of public accommodation in the U.S.A. regardless of race, you've got another thing coming.

Not since 1883, when the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated the Civil Rights Act of 1875, as there been any national law against racial discrimination in public places.

During the 12 years of its existence, that law assured persons in the U.S.A. full and equal access to hotels, common carriers, theatres, and other places of amusement, subject only to such regulations as applied to everyone alike.

In those bygone days if you were denied admission because of your race you could file a complaint in Federal court, which would impose a heavy fine and sentence against the proprietor, and award you substantial cash damages.

About that same time the Reconstruction legislatures of five former Confederate states-Louisiana, Florida, South Carolina, Arkansas, and Mississippi-adopted similar civil rights laws (this was, of course, before the poor whites and Negroes were disfranchised by the Klan terror). But with the exception of Louisiana, all these laws were repealed when the democratic white-Negro regimes were overthrown by the oligarchic white planters. The Louisiana law, an Act of 1869, is still on the books; but it has long since been forgotten, and should you seek to claim your rights under it, you should be prepared for fireworks.

Today in more than half of the 48 states of the U.S.A. there are no laws prohibiting racial and religious discrimination in places of public accommodation. Those state civil rights laws which do exist are of varying degrees of comprehensiveness and are inadequately enforced. For instance, on March 1, 1953, Kenneth Brush, a barber of Waterloo, New York, finally consented to give a haircut to Clyde (Butch) Williams, an 8 year old Negro lad, only after the boy's mother sent a letter to the Waterloo Observer complaining that previous refusals by the shop had made it necessary to take her son 40 miles to Syracuse to have his hair cut.

The old English common, or unwritten, law, on which most American jurisprudence is based, has undergone an interesting mutation in the U. S. A. in that in the segregated territory the courts have held that proprietors of public places have a common-law right to exclude Negroes, while outside this territory some courts have held that Negroes have a common-law right to enter places of public accommodation.

Delaware and Tennessee have written laws upholding the right of proprietors of public places to practice racial discrimination.

The Delaware law, adopted after the Civil War, empowers proprietors of hotels, restaurants, theatres and similar establishments to refuse accommodation to anyone who may be deemed offensive to the majority of the clientele.

The Tennessee law, adopted in 1875 and patterned after that of Delaware, was somewhat modified in 1885 by a provision that "all well-behaved persons" must be admitted to public places-except that the right of proprietors to segregate their patrons according to race is reserved.

Although not all states in the segregated territory have written laws upholding the right of proprietors of public places to practice racial discrimination, such sanction has often been extended by the courts.

For example, in a North Carolina case the court ruled that the guests of a hotel "cannot be lawfully prevented from going in or be put out ... unless they be persons of bad or suspicious character, or of vulgar habits, or so objectionable to the patrons of the house, on account of the race to which they belong, that it would injure the cc business to admit them

Alabama, it should be mentioned, does have a law which prohibits members of one race from using toilet facilities in a hotel or restaurant that is operated for members of the other race. This is, of course, intended to keep Negro employees of white establishments from using the facilities provided for the white clientele.

For quite some time Massachusetts had a law forbidding white women under 21 years of age to enter a restaurant or hotel operated by a Chinese, it having been contended that Chinese proprietors foster prostitution.

Be advised, however, that there is no nook or cranny anywhere in the U.S.A. where whites and Negroes can commingle in the public view without being made aware of the fact that they form an interracial group.

Continue on to Chapter 14